A change of leadership in the School of English took place at the beginning of September. We asked the outgoing Head of English, Otto Heim, and the new Head, Dirk Noël, to share their thoughts with us.

Being there

‘How does it feel to be at the helm?’ I’ve been asked a few times these past three years. Well, it doesn’t really feel like that; a department doesn’t move or operate like some craft. More like an orchestra perhaps (made up of gifted soloists), and from time to time the Head of School may fancy himself on the podium. To begin with, however, being Head feels rather like Chance the gardener, in Jerzy Kosinski’s novella Being There, becoming Chauncey Gardiner. There is no induction for new Heads; you start with a vague idea of the job as including everything, somewhat dauntingly spelled out in a list of eighteen duties handed to you upon appointment. You try to learn as you go, taking your cues from situations and expectations as they face you. In the School of English, you’re fortunate to be working with people who all know how to use their Head and, what’s more, are willing to trust and support you. One of the greatest satisfactions of the job therefore comes from encouraging, facilitating, and augmenting where possible the initiatives of your colleagues.

When I took up the position, I was looking forward to heading the School during a period of major reforms and developments, including the introduction of a new undergraduate curriculum, the relocation to the new campus, new staff appointments, collaborative research projects, and the internationalization of our research postgraduate programmes (see Alumni Magazine of June 30, 2011). I saw these as opportunities and challenges to integrate and strengthen the School’s work and recognition, both locally and internationally. Looking back now, I feel we have grasped these opportunities successfully and I recall as particularly rewarding the time spent working with colleagues discussing, drafting, and realizing efforts and events that express the School’s vision today. Chief among these may be our new curriculum, which represents a collective commitment to deliver two undergraduate programmes that match our reputation for excellence in research. Indeed, looking back, what I find most remarkable is that the time and care we have invested in the curriculum reform have not diminished the momentum and calibre of our research activities. We’ve hosted two significant and internationally noted conferences in the past two years and are now planning several more in the two years ahead. At the same time, the School has continued to do extremely well in the annual applications for research grants under the government’s General Research Fund for three years in a row. This too is a source of satisfaction to the Head. By comparison, among the more stressful parts of the job have inevitably been financial and personnel matters, the former because of their Kafkaesque nature, the latter because they are the most important matters a Head has to deal with and test one’s personal skills and qualities most seriously.

If a Head can rightly claim some credit for what his colleagues achieve during his term, the flip side of this coin is that your colleagues can rightly expect you to be there for them whenever they need you to assist in their endeavours, help solve a problem, or lend the necessary push or pull to an initiative. The feeling of being there all the time can bring with it a sense of (occasional) isolation and an exaggerated sense of importance, which the University blithely nurtures by feeding the Head a steady diet of forms to sign, applications to endorse, documents to disseminate and nil replies to report. This inevitably takes its toll on the Head’s head and body; in my case, specifically in the form of weight issues (disproportionate to the responsibility allowance I was receiving) and more sleepless nights than usual. After three years, I feel I’ve reached my use-by date: last week the Personnel Unit asked me to redo my signature on some important forms as it had become corrupted from overuse and no longer matched the template submitted at the start of my term.

The business of replacing the Head in our School is part of normal politics and for as long as anyone can remember has thankfully dispensed with the need for real beheadings. The most difficult part is to convince another member to assume the role, if not the shape, of the Head. Once the new Head is appointed, however, a feeling of possibility and lightness suddenly pervades the campus; I find my old clothes miraculously fit again. Looking back, I’m most grateful to all my colleagues for the trust and support they’ve given me these past three years. I look forward to being an unspecified member of the School again and to devote more time to the study of literature and its relationship to normal and extraordinary politics. And should the position of a gardener become vacant in the School, I will consider applying for it.

Otto Heim
Head of School bowing out

Published on: September 2, 2013 < Back >